The holidays are often called the “silly season” – a time when we eat, drink and rejoice. But those holiday indulgences can lead to feelings of guilt and fear that we’ve undone all the healthy habits of the rest of the year. But how much do you really need to worry about the impacts of overeating on vacation?
Yes, weight gain can happen during the holidays
There are studies which show that weight gain can and does occur during silly season. But on average, it’s not as dramatic as the diet culture would have us believe, at around 0.7 kg.
However, because humans are complex and varied, and the science of nutrition is difficult, there are studies with varying results. Some show that despite significant increases in overall energy intake and reduction in food quality, weight gain does not occur.
Importantly, much of this research comes from the northern hemisphere where major holidays coincide with winter. And these studies focus on weight, not health. Weight is just a convenient marker to measure, but health is more complicated.
Food is not just fuel
Food is not just energy and nutrients. It’s a big part of our cultures and our celebrations, and it helps to social, cultural and emotional well-being.
Although harder to study, feeding our souls with foods that connect us to loved ones and traditions is just as important as the role food plays in nourishing our bodies.
The end-of-year celebrations are also an opportunity to share meals. Meal sharing contributes to our emotional well-being and happiness.
Say hello to homeostasis
Homeostasis is a scientific term that describes how systems self-regulate. The word comes from the ancient Greek words for “similar” and “stable”.
In living things, this means that biology can adapt to changes to keep things in their normal constant state. Essentially, our bodies are always making small, constant biological changes to help things stay the same. It’s how we regulate things like our body temperature, blood sugar, blood pressure, and other systems important for survival.
The principles of homeostasis also apply to our diet and metabolism. If we eat more during a festive day or two (or even weeks), our biology works to minimize the impacts. It’s also why losing weight on restrictive diets can be difficult – homeostasis means that when we reduce our energy intake, our body adapts to less energy consumption.
Thus, for most people, discrete periods of indulgence are unlikely to be the primary determinants of health outcomes. The patterns we follow most of the time are more likely to influence our long-term health.
It’s a matter of balance
And now science has helped you relax a bit, a few words of caution.
Drink with moderation
Overconsumption of alcohol can cause increased risk of chronic diseases.
Excessive alcohol consumption during the holiday season increases the risk of alcohol-related harm, including accidents and violence.
Staying hydrated by alternating with soft drinks helps reduce the amount of alcohol you drink and the severity of a hangover, but it won’t eliminate the risk.
Food security risks
Festive meals, with sharing, traveling and overloaded refrigerators increase our food poisoning risks. Summer holidays also bring an additional risk of heat.
You want to share food and joy, not germs, so remember your basic food safety rules such as washing hands, avoiding cross-contamination of raw meats and other foods, keeping foods cool and heating them well.
It’s also a good idea to make sure you talk to your guests or hosts about food allergens to make sure everyone is having a safe holiday treat.
The bottom line
What we eat is a big part of determining our health, but adding a helping of guilt to your festive feast isn’t healthy either.
For truly healthy choices, focus on balance and moderation for most of the year and for most of your choices, but social and cultural eating is part of the balance.
Savoring your celebratory foods doesn’t have to mean throwing away all your healthy habits, but healthy eating and healthy indulgence can co-exist if we let it.